Castration: Not So Bad, Historically

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"Better Off Castrated?" asks the impossible-to-resist headline from The New York Times Idea of the Day blog. The author, Tom Kuntz, highlights a Failure magazine article in which Jason Zasky refutes the belief that 16th- and 17th-century castrati--men castrated before puberty to retain high voices--were purely victims. Some of these singing superstars, in fact, may even have been better off.

Chief among Zasky's arguments is an economic one: "a castrato could make a good living as a singer even if he failed to become a star, and that many boys who were castrated had relatively little to lose." Illness and violence took many seventeenth-century males before their prime, while the introduction of inheritance by primogeniture meant that non-firstborn sons were forced into the military, the church, or destitution. Being castrated, meanwhile, offered a chance at "a comprehensive musical education," not to mention a steady and decent living.

"Our response to the mere idea of castration is colored by modern-day sensibilities," Zasky writes, arguing that we shouldn't assume past societies shared our obsession with sexual satisfaction. And in bygone days, "bodily mutilation was much more common," and castration was in fact the preferred "treatment for an adult male with a hernia."

Zasky doesn't deny the drawbacks to the castrato's life: "it must be conceded that even those widely admired for their vocal gifts were prone to being mocked and subjected to vile insults ... Moreover, many castratos were no doubt unhappy about not being able to marry." But on the other hand, they were stars. He draws on one modern countertenor's research to paint the following picture:

"As to their psychology, stories abound of their temperamental behavior, but they were probably no worse than any other singers," suggests Clapton. "Some may have suffered depression through sexual frustration, but that is a common human trait. Others were notorious for their sexual adventures,” he concludes, presumably able to overcome liabilities like an underdeveloped penis and variable erectile function ... At the peak of their popularity ... successful castratos were at the center of the opera world, so much so that theatrical casts were built around them, arias were tailored to their voices, and operas were arranged and adapted to suit their needs and egos ... The fame, adulation, wealth and often the scandal that attended them are not unlike that of a modern-day pop star"
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